From Anger to Hope, Six Emotions That Spark Success

5 min read

Part 2 of a two-part series.

Part one of this two-part series on the power of negative emotions to fuel success focused on a recent Texas A&M University study (Lench et al., 2023), which found that anger has benefits for goal attainment if the task at hand feels really difficult but that anger doesn’t help if a goal feels easy to achieve.

Buravleva stock/Shutterstock

Buravleva stock/Shutterstock

This follow-up post focuses on an international study (Pekrun et al., 2023) conducted by University of Essex psychologists on the taxonomy of “achievement emotions,” also called “success emotions.”

Reinhard Pekrun’s recent multi-pronged study identifies anger as one of the most potent emotions for achieving short-term success but also warns that overusing negative emotions for goal attainment can cause health problems related to hypo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis hyperactivity.

Both evidence-based research papers mentioned above were recently published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Anger and Hope Can Spark Your Motivation to Succeed

Essex’s recent study on “achievement emotions” quantifies the pros and cons associated with 12 emotions ranging from anger to hope in terms of how each emotion affects one’s odds of success and shows how using negative emotions to boost achievement comes at a cost.

For their latest study, Pekrun et al. used a revised version of the Achievement Emotions Questionnaire (AEQ) that Pekrun first developed just over a decade ago, in 2011. The AEQ assesses various emotions someone might experience when pursuing a goal or striving to achieve something.

All together, the AEQ assesses 12 distinct emotions associated with achievement or lack thereof. Pekrun’s achievement emotions are divided equally between six positive emotions (Hope, Enjoyment, Pride, Relaxation, Assurance, Relief) and six negative emotions (Anger, Anxiety, Shame, Boredom, Disappointment, and Hopelessness).

Of these 12 emotions, six (equally split between positive and negative) are associated with better odds of success.

Six Positive and Negative Emotions That Can Fuel Success:

  1. Hope
  2. Anger
  3. Enjoyment
  4. Anxiety (i.e., stage fright)
  5. Pride
  6. Shame

Interestingly, Pekrun and colleagues found that anger has the most robust short-term ability to turbocharge someone’s goal attainment. However, as mentioned, it comes at a price. Because anger triggers the nervous system’s fight-or-flight stress response, it gives people an adrenaline rush by activating the HPA axis, causing the adrenal glands to secrete endogenous glucocorticoids (the body’s own steroids).

In small doses, activating the HPA axis for goal attainment and being energized by self-produced steroids can facilitate peak performance. However, chronic HPA axis hyperactivity can be problematic and cause health issues.

For example, in Pekrun’s recent study, using negative emotions such as anger to spark one’s motivation to succeed was associated with health problems such as tachycardia (racing heart), IBS-like stomach issues, headaches, vertigo (dizziness), back problems, poor sleep quality, and tiredness.

“[We] found feelings like anxiety and anger can sometimes motivate us more than enjoyment or relaxation,” Pekrun said in a news release. “However, despite energizing powers, [negative emotions] can lead to a drop in performance in the long run. Overall, hope was the healthiest and best way to spark success and promote long-term happiness.”

Hope Is Healthier Than Anger When Trying to Spark Success

Considering the heavy toll that anger and other negative emotions can take on one’s well-being, hope comes out on top as the most efficacious and healthiest emotion for achievement.

On the flip side, hopelessness is the worst. Whereas hopefulness promotes optimism, enthusiasm, and eagerness to succeed, hopelessness has the opposite effect; it’s like kryptonite that sucks the wind out of goal-seekers’ sails.

Previous research has shown that hope uniquely predicts success when pursuing a goal. Hopefulness boosts motivation and determination by fortifying a sense of agency and a belief that, with some strategic planning and hard work, pathways to success exist.

Last night, while watching Sylvester Stallone’s eponymously titled Netflix documentary, Sly, I was reminded of the latest (2023) research on achievement emotions numerous times.

Throughout the film, Stallone describes how the power of anger, pride, hope, shame, disappointment, fear-of-failure anxieties, and many other emotions led to writing and acting in his breakthrough Academy-Award-winning movie Rocky.

While sharing his life story, Stallone corroborates how tapping into what Pekrun et al. would call negative and positive “achievement emotions” can fortify one’s determination to never give up and prevail in the face of adversity. In many ways, Rocky’s underdog scrappiness and eye-of-the-tiger mindset were inspired by hardships Sly had to overcome growing up in Hell’s Kitchen.

In this heartfelt documentary, Stallone opens up about the impact of countless adverse childhood experiences in his youth and how his physically and verbally abusive father was never a cheerleader or someone who wanted him to succeed. In fact, his dad often sabotaged and derailed Sly’s odds of success in a way that made his son fervently determined not to fail.

In the documentary’s final monologue, just before the credits roll, Stallone sums up his view on the importance of hope:

“If you have no guidance, and you have to go through life feeling devalued every inch of the way, that leaves a hole. And that hole is never filled. What I can do is fill it through imagination. I want to [give people] hope. I’m in the hope business. And I just hate sad endings.”

Take-Home Message

Accumulating evidence suggests that negative emotions such as anger can be like rocket fuel that helps people achieve lofty goals. But just like rocket engines burn out fast, using anger to fuel achievement taxes the adrenals and often causes burnout. In the long run, hope is the optimal achievement emotion because it sparks success without causing stress-related health problems.

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